For the holiday free-for-all, I’m replaying one of my all-time favorites, Alpha Centauri.
Alpha what? Was that Sid Meier’s fraternity or something?
Alpha Centauri is a sci-fi turn-based strategy game released in 1999. It was born from legal strife when Sid Meier left MicroProse to found his own company, Firaxis. Both companies claimed the Civilization title, so while litigation dragged on they retooled their work on Civilization 3 into a new game.
Every game in the Civilization series is a remake of the previous one, each iteration adding more features and refining gameplay. Alpha Centauri was a direct sequel of sorts. One of the endings to Civilization 2 was to build a spacecraft and leave Earth for Alpha Centauri (this is actually an option for all Civ games, 1-5). This game is the story of what happened next.
If you’ve played any of the Civilization games, this game will feel very familiar. You build cities, armies, infrastructure. You wage war, engage other factions in diplomacy, and direct research initiatives. That’s all in here, but a lot of new ground was broken too, like borders between nations (seriously, we take the for granted now but in Civ 2 foreign units could just chill out next to your base and you couldn’t do anything to make them leave other than declare war), a U.N. Council, winning the game via economy, faction leader traits, unit prototyping, etc.
This was a huge step forward from Civilization 2. Probably the biggest step in the whole series, except for perhaps Civilization 5, but many (me included) would say that was huge step backward. The innovations here really set the tone for following games, especially Civilization 4 (the masterpiece of the series and gaming as a whole).
Alright alright, the game is important, but why do you love it?
Alpha Centauri‘s factions aren’t divided by nationality, but ideology. There’s a green faction, police state, military-industrial complex, free market oligarchy, theocracy, technocratic republic, and humanist democracy to choose from. This isn’t picking a nationality because you think the Aztecs are cool or your last name is vaguely German, picking a faction is this game is Rorschach test of political values.
I know that’s heavy-handed, but think about what the game is asking you. It’s presenting you with seven distinct and culturally defining forms of government to save humankind post-Armageddon. What do you truly value? What are you willing to sacrifice to survive? Dumped on a harsh, unforgiving world with no hope of escape, what ideology would you cling to for survival? These may not be pressing questions in daily life but still something worth thinking about, and certainly something not often asked in video games.
Another thing I love about Alpha Centauri is its aesthetics. The sci-fi trappings are just cool. Exploring an alien world is fun. The development team really worked hard to make this world believable. There are text interludes after important discoveries that give you pieces of the overall story, such as how this breakthrough was discovered, how every day human life is adapting to the new world. You uncover bits of the planet’s history as you explore. You find alien artifacts among an invasive fungus that covers the planet’s surface. Later evidence suggests the planet itself may have a consciousness (helloooooooo Avatar). Even the planet’s cartography is well done.
There are geographical landmarks, such as meteor craters, river values, volcanoes, etc. The continents are balanced for gameplay, yet look natural. You can almost see the continental drift and how all the pieces once fit together into a Pangea-like mega-continent
This game also has sentimental value for me so allow me to gush for a moment. I played the HELL out of this game during high school. This, and Diablo 2 were my go-to’s. Playing this makes me feel like I’m fifteen again. I know this game like some people know Jurassic Park or Zelda or whatever thing you obsessed over as a teen. It just feels good coming back to it, like comfort food.
BLAH BLAH BLAH you write a lot!
OK just watch this.
OK you’ve convinced me, where can I get it?
You can buy Alpha Centauri at GOG. However it doesn’t include the expansion pack, Alien Crossfire for some reason, which is a shame because it adds a lot to the game, like more factions, more units, etc. This expansion is NOT necessary, Alpha Centauri is a full game without it, and stands on its own perfectly well.
If you want to go a little deeper, both the original and the expansion can be found on Amazon, though prices tend to vary wildly. I’ve seen them anywhere from ten dollars to 100(!). Copies pop on Ebay from time to time.
So come along, won’t you? Next stop, Alpha Centauri, a planet of ideologues, mind worms, and Stylist’s nostalgia for his misspent youth.